A New Media Storyline for MLK (pt. 1)

Martin Luther King Jr., "Beyond Vietnam" speech, Riverside Church, New York, April 1967

Today, 16 January, the people of the United States of America will recognize Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a national holiday. And just as they have for most of the 31 years that the birthday of the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. has been a nationally observed holiday, the American news media will basically get the story wrong.

Every year around this time, the storyline of the U.S. press goes something like this:

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. battled racial segregation laws in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 [cue up: brief excerpts of violent police scenes against Black marchers], followed by a heartwarming speech later that year during a big public demonstration at the U.S. capital of Washington DC in which he shared his dream of future racial harmony in the USA [cue up: brief excerpts of “I Have a Dream” speech]. In 1965 King marched in Selma, Alabama for voting rights for African American citizens [cue up: more brief scenes of police violence against Black marchers]. And finally, in 1968 King was killed by the single bullet of a lone, crazed assassin, ending King’s dream forever [cue up: brief scene of a fatally injured King lying flat on his back on a second-floor motel walkway].

That’s how the American media version of Dr. King’s life has gone for most of the past 49 years since his death: with the sad tale of a nonviolent, naïve dreamer who stood up for the rights of his people but who died never having achieved his dream of racial harmony between black children and white children. Martin Luther King Jr. — the harmless, hopeless dreamer.

But King’s own actions during the last full year of his life tell us a much different story, one that the U.S. press establishment has never been comfortable with reporting in detail, in part because the press played a direct role in knocking King down at the time. Here are parts of the U.S. media’s yearly storyline on Martin Luther King Jr. and the national holiday in his name that have been all but erased from history and public memory:

• Vietnam war awakening Rev. King, by his own account and that of others who knew him, was shown the January 1967 edition of Ramparts, a leftist political/literary magazine based in San Francisco, California, just after the magazine had come out. That issue of Ramparts featured a lengthy article by U.S. educator and activist William Pepper titled “The Children of Vietnam”, based on evidence he gathered during a trip to Vietnam. The report by Pepper featured shocking photos of innocent Vietnamese children who had been maimed or severely burned by napalm (jellied gasoline) used by U.S. soldiers in Vietnam. Rev. King would later say that once he saw on those pages of Ramparts the truth of what his own government was doing to innocent civilians in Vietnam, he knew he could never remain silent about the Vietnam war again, as he had been in the past.

• Coming out against warFrom the pulpit of the interdenominational Riverside Church in downtown New York City (a church financed and built decades earlier by the wealthy Rockefeller family), Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gives one of the most important speeches of his life — if not the most important one. In “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence”, co-written with historian Vincent Harding, King speaks for about an hour and announces for the first time his opposition to the U.S. war of aggression on the Southeast Asian nation of Vietnam. “…I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos [of America] without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government. For the sake of those [Black] boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent,” King declares.

King points out the cruel irony of young African American men being drafted in disproportionately high numbers to fight side by side with young white American men in Vietnam, burning down the villages of Vietnamese peasants together, while back at home in the USA those same young men of different races might not even be able to attend the same schools or live in the same neighborhoods.

The U.S. war on the people of Vietnam was a symptom of something deeper and more sinister, King says, than just a matter of simply fighting against communism abroad: The real enemy is capitalism at home in the USA, which had turned the nation into a “thing-oriented society”. King points out how the USA is increasingly on the wrong side of struggles for freedom around the world, and that it is time to look beyond the U.S. war in Vietnam to the real causes of war, poverty and racism. He calls for a “true revolution of values” in the USA, and quoting the Christian bible, urges America to support such a revolution: “These are revolutionary times. All over the globe men are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression, and out of the wounds of a frail world, new systems of justice and equality are being born. The shirtless and barefoot people of the land are rising up as never before. ‘The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light’. We in the West must support these revolutions.”

King encourages young people in the USA to refuse to fight in the Vietnam war by becoming conscientious objectors. King is instantly welcomed into the broad anti-war movement in the USA, but is immediately ostracized and isolated among those, both Black and white, who think the “civil rights” struggle should be kept separate from the anti-Vietnam war movement. King’s direct access to U.S. president Lyndon Johnson, a southern Democrat who had worked with Black leaders for civil rights in the past and who also dramatically escalated the U.S. war on Vietnam, is now gone forever.

King chose the language of nonviolent revolution, strong and clear, to make his case for coming out against the war. The date of King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech was 4 April 1967 — a date that would figure significantly in his remaining life.

• Condemned by the press The influential U.S. news media establishment reacted swiftly and strongly against King following his “Beyond Vietnam” speech. The Washington Post publishes an editorial that ends on a merciless note with these words: “Dr. King has done a grave injury to those who are his natural allies in a great struggle to remove ancient abuses from our public life; and he has done an even graver injury to himself. Many who have listened to him with respect will never again accord him the same confidence. He has diminished his usefulness to his cause, to his country and to his people. And that is a great tragedy” {*1}.

The New York Times publishes an editorial, titled “Dr. King’s Error”, in which it chastises King for trying to link together the fight for civil rights of Black people at home in the USA with the anti-war movement spreading across the nation, which the Times called “two public problems that are distinct and separate. By drawing them together, Dr. King has done a disservice to both” {*2}. A comparison by King in his “Beyond Vietnam” speech between the USA and Nazi Germany draws a swift rebuke from America’s newspaper of record: “…Dr. King can only antagonize public opinion in this country by recklessly comparing American military methods to those of the Nazis testing ‘new medicine and new tortures in the concentration camps of Europe’. The facts are harsh, but they do not justify such slander.”

In severely criticizing King and his new anti-war stance, the big American media companies were essentially trying to put King in his place and strip him of his credibility among the public. But one thing that the Washington Post and New York Times never bothered to tell the public at the time back in 1967 is that these two newspapers (and several other U.S. major news media outlets as well) had been maintaining close ties at the highest levels of their news companies to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the most powerful spy agency within the U.S. government, as this writer and others have documented {*3}. Such news organizations were far from being objective, neutral sources of reporting on King and his activities.

• Challenging press hypocrisy A few weeks later, on 30 April 1967, Rev. King reconfirms his stance against the Vietnam war during a Sunday sermon that he preaches at his home church, the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. In his sermon, “Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam” (text link here), King reiterates much of his earlier speech at the Riverside Church in New York, but with an important addition: He takes the American press to task for its hypocrisy in the way that news media companies reported on him both before and after he came out against the Vietnam war:

“There’s been a lot of applauding over the last few years. They’ve applauded our total movement and they’ve applauded me. America and most of its newspapers applauded me in Montgomery [Alabama in 1956], when I stood before thousands of Negroes getting ready to riot when my home was bombed and said, ‘We can’t do it this way’. They applauded us in the sit-in movement when we nonviolently decided to sit in at lunch counters. The applauded us on the Freedom Rides when we accepted blows without retaliation. They praised us in Albany and Birmingham and Selma, Alabama. Oh, the press was so noble in its applause and so noble in its praise when I was saying ‘Be nonviolent toward Bull Connor’, when I was saying ‘Be nonviolent toward Jim Clark’ [Selma, Alabama segregationist sheriff]. There’s something strangely inconsistent about a nation and a press that will praise you when you say ‘Be nonviolent toward Jim Clark’, but will curse and damn you when you say ‘Be nonviolent toward little brown Vietnamese children’. There’s something wrong with that press!” [applause]

“Three Evils” speech Rev. King is the keynote speaker of a political gathering he helped organize in Chicago on 31 August and 1 September 1967 by the National Conference for New Politics (NCNP), a group of prominent intellectuals and activists on the political left who wanted to directly challenge the pro-war policies of both the Republican and Democratic parties. In this memorable but long-forgotten speech, King attacks what he calls the “three evils” of contemporary American society: racism, militarism and excessive materialism (speech transcript here). King, in putting his support behind the NCNP, saw much potential common ground to be tapped between the civil rights movement, with its focus on Black equality, and the broad anti-war movement of mostly white young people.

The NCNP conference this Labor Day weekend includes laying the groundwork for fielding an independent presidential candidate in the upcoming 1968 election. The presidential candidate nominated at the NCNP conference? Martin Luther King Jr. himself, with pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock nominated as King’s vice presidential running mate. (This first annual meeting of the NCNP turned out to be its last, due to the presence of agents provocateurs and U.S. government infiltrators in the audience who managed to sabotage the group’s activities.)

• Poor people’s campaign Rev. King ends the year 1967 by announcing on 4 December his next big campaign: taking the model of local marches against poverty in the U.S. South to the major cities of the North, and expanding them greatly in scale. The first target of this massive Poor People’s March: Washington DC, in spring of the coming year, to be followed by a series of major marches on other big northern U.S. cities as well.

“This will be no mere one-day march in Washington,” King says, but rather “a trek to the nation’s capital by suffering and outraged citizens who will stay until some definite and positive action is taken to provide jobs and income for the poor.” People will flood into Washington DC in their thousands, pitch tents, and lay claim to the financial resources and governmental policy priorities that are rightfully theirs as U.S. citizens, he states: “We will go there, we will demand to be heard, and we will stay until America responds” {*4}.

King says this new anti-poverty campaign will involve a base of about 3,000 African American volunteers, and other volunteers across the racial spectrum, from at least 10 major northern U.S. cities, and grow from there. The human resources and networks of the anti-war/peace movement in the U.S. will be used to help carry out the poor people’s campaign at the grassroots level, he said, and all participants in the Poor People’s March are to be trained in nonviolent tactics of resistance. King emphasizes that this sustained, nonviolent campaign against poverty and war in the United States is a preferred alternative to the violent, destructive riots that are sure to engulf U.S. cities in the near future.

• Olympic boycott Ten days later, on 14 December 1967, Rev. King enters a raging controversy in international sports when he announces his public support for Black American athletes who are threatening to boycott the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City the following year, refusing to playing as part of the U.S. team. This Olympic boycott, King says, is “a protest and a struggle against racism and injustice” toward Black athletes and other athletes who were being discriminated against {*5}.

(continued in part 2)

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